Monday, July 24, 2017

What Not to Do on the 4th of July: A National Parks Odyssey Day 23

Our family hasn’t been in the United States for a 4th of July since 2009.  And this year was only the third year in Knox’s lifetime that we were in the US for the holiday.  He doesn’t remember ever having a traditional 4th of July.  In fact, last year while doing mission work in Brazil, we mentioned something about sparklers, and he didn’t know what they were.  So this year, since we were going to be in the good old US of A for Independence Day, I wanted to be sure to do something, well, really 4th-of-July-ish.
This is the only picture I have from July 4th, 2009.  And it turns out that Josh and I weren't in the country then, either.  We were on a no-kids trip to the Virgin Islands.  So I haven't been in the US for the 4th since 2007.  In this picture, Knox is watching the parade in Fort Thomas, KY with his grandparents.
To be honest, I had actually forgotten that the 4th of July would be happening while we were on this trip because I’ve grown so unaccustomed to thinking about it during our summers.  So when I finally connected the dots a week or so into our journey, I Googled “July 4th events at Yosemite” to find out what the park system would be doing to honor the occasion.  I was disappointed to find that the park had nothing – zero, nada -- online about the holiday.  (Once we arrived in Yosemite, we saw fliers for several holiday events in the park – a talent show, a hoedown, a sing-along – but none of them were listed anywhere online, a fact I was sure to point out to park officials.)  The best I could find online two weeks ahead was an outdoor buffet that I managed to book at a resort outside the park.  The information on the website promised traditional 4th of July food and entertainment, minus the fireworks, of course, since the park prohibits them and the resort shares park boundaries.  But still, we had reservations for red, white, and blue fun.

We woke up excited to celebrate our nation’s birthday in one of its most beautiful places.  The problem was, we had forgotten how packed state and national parks are for the 4th.  The shuttles were packed, the visitors’ center was mobbed, and the trails were overwhelmed with people.  To make things worse, I made the mistake of checking my Facebook feed using the free wifi at the Half Dome Village lounge and found myself frustrated by all of the posts criticizing and condemning our country and emphasizing its many mistakes.  People were griping about fireworks and politics and the admittedly horrible things that America has done from its settlement until today.  And these posts weren’t from my many friends from other countries, mind you.  They were from my fellow Americans.  Americans who clearly hadn’t spent eight summers in foreign countries while the rest of their friends and family celebrated with cookouts and watermelon and flag-shaped desserts and trips to the lake.  And it put me in a seriously foul mood.  Here I was, actually getting to spend an Independence Day in my very own country for the first time in eight years, and all I felt was angry.

Until I looked around me.

I was surrounded by immigrants and foreign visitors.  I could hear numerous languages.  I could see evidence in clothing choices of multiple cultures.  Here I was, visiting a place of stunning natural beauty that was only protected because of our clearly-imperfect national government, and who was here with me?  People from all over the planet.  And guess what many of them were wearing.

Wait for it.

Old Navy Fourth of July t-shirts.  Droves of them.  Entire families were wearing them.  Over their saris.  Over their salwar kameezes.  Under their hijabs.  They even sported American flag sunglasses.  Proudly.  And, to be fair, these people could all have been fifth generation American citizens.  I didn’t make them produce their passports.  But still.  They were wearing things emblazoned with the symbols of an imperfect country, whether it was their home country or not.  And it made me feel better.
When I first asked to take this family's picture, they were VERY hesitant.  But when I explained that they were the perfect representation of the spirit of the 4th of July, the patriarch (on the far left) gave his enthusiastic consent.  Notice both the Old Navy tee and the American flag sunglasses.

These people came to this country – in spite of its faults – because there is beauty here.  They aren’t here because we’ve got it all figured out.  Or because they like it here better than they like their own country.  Or because our government makes all the right choices.  They came to see the beauty here for themselves.  And while they were here, they wanted to celebrate with us.  And they unashamedly wore their red, white, and blue on American Independence Day.
I know this one isn't an Old Navy one, but I promise there were dozens.  And they weren't on WASP-ish people.

And I was proud.  And moved.  And vindicated.

Some Americans act as if we have a corner on the frustration-with-our-government market.  And to them I’d say, you need to get out more.  Talk to Brazilians.  They are so frustrated that many of them are far beyond feeling any sort of hope for their country.  But does that stop them from singing their national anthem at the top of their voices during a World Cup match?  Does it stop them from proudly sporting flip-flops and t-shirts emblazoned with their national flag?  Does it stop them from genuinely loving their homeland?  Nope.

All countries are flawed.  Because countries are made up of people.  And people are flawed.  And it is possible to love your country while being frustrated with its policies.

Here’s the thing.  I try to give people I know a little more leeway on their birthday.  When a friend experiences unfortunate circumstances, I empathize.  But if something unfortunate happens on her birthday?  Well, that’s even worse.  In fact, most of us try to be nice to our friends and family on their birthdays.  So I just think it’s bad form to criticize America on her birthday.  You want to point out all the ways she’s not yet evolved to the point you (and I) want her to be?  You’ve got 364 other days to do it.  But on July 4th, I just want to be grateful. 

For things like national parks (which the US invented, by the way).  For wide open spaces.  For barbecue.  For jazz.  For Broadway.  For squirrels. (Foreigners get really excited about seeing squirrels.)  For drinkable tap water. (You think it’s only third world countries that have unsafe tap water?  You’re wrong.)  For recycling.  (You think all developed nations recycle?  Nope.)  For entrepreneurship.  (You think anyone in any country can start a business if they have the skills and the finances?  Wrong again.) For not having to pay for a virtual private network in order to check my email.  (My spring break trip made me grateful for that one.)  For Senators and Representatives who don’t always vote with their party.  (Ask the Australians the last time that a Member of Parliament did that in their country.)  Did I mention national parks?

That evening, we had a great time celebrating our country.  We drove to Tenaya Resort, ate good food, practiced archery (OK, not a typical 4th of July activity, but fun nonetheless), participated in a sing-along, and made s’mores.  We met some new people and basked in the American-ness of the whole thing.  It wasn’t exactly the Independence Day traditions of my youth, but it satisfied my craving for an American celebration in my own country on July 4th.
Knox and Kinley aim for the target.
Knox roasts his marshmallow to perfection.

Not sure why he needed sunglasses to make a s'more, but there it is.
Dinner included barbecue, chili, and baked potatoes.  The decor was super festive, too!

Family picture!

Knox sang  on stage with the band!

And then on the way back to our little cabin in Yosemite Valley, we pulled over just before dark to check out a lovely little meadow trail.  There wasn’t another soul on the trail, so we sang every single patriotic song we could possibly come up with.  At the top of our lungs.  Even when we couldn’t remember the words.  (Who has all the words to “This Is My Country” memorized anyway?  It’s impressive enough that we knew the chorus.)  But we knocked it out of the park with “America, the Beautiful,” “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” “You’re a Grand Ole Flag,” “God Bless America,” and “This Land is Your Land.”  We even made a brief foray into all the state songs we could think of as we drove back to the Yosemite Valley.  We sang and laughed and made fun of each other for messing up the words. 

And we felt connected.  Connected to our families celebrating elsewhere in more traditional ways.  Connected to each other.  Connected to our homeland.  And connected to all those families from who-knows-where who were proudly wearing their American flag t-shirts in one of the most beautiful places in the world. 

And it felt good.  And it reminded me of what NOT to do on the 4th of July.
1)    Don’t check Facebook unless other people’s complaints don’t bother you.
2)    Don’t plan to be in a national park unless you LOVE crowds.
3)    Don’t worry about not remembering all the words.  Sing loud and proud.  Maybe in an Old Navy 4th of July t-shirt.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Who Knew That You Could Kill a Day in Fresno?: A National Park Odyssey Day 22

Kings Canyon National Park to Yosemite National Park via Fresno, CA
From Kings Canyon, we drove to one of the most famous parks in the US, Yosemite.

We discovered our problem during breakfast on the porch at the John Muir Lodge in Kings Canyon.  On a trip this long, we have a specific plan for which parks we’ll visit each day, and we have hotel reservations booked in advance for every night.  But beyond that, we don’t have clear plans nailed down until about three days out. So it wasn’t until breakfast that we began contemplating the route we’d be taking that day into Yosemite National Park. 

Josh was checking the hours for the Yosemite Visitors’ Center, looking at suggested hikes, and finalizing driving routes when he discovered an announcement from the National Park Service.  Because of the upcoming 4th of July holiday and especially heavy summer visitor numbers, guests should avoid entering the park between the hours of 11:00 am and 6:00 pm which, of course, was the time period we’d planned to arrive.  Yosemite was a 2 ½ hour drive away, and it was already 9:00 am.  What to do?

Sitting in a long line of cars to go through the entrance checkpoint didn’t sound like a fun way to spend a couple of hours, so we decided to take our time packing up, take advantage of the free wifi, and blow some time in Fresno on the way.  All of our Grand Canyon gear (cowboy boots, jeans, etc.) were taking up valuable space in the car plus we’d bought some souvenirs at Disneyland that could be shipped home, and we could do that in Fresno.  Additionally, we needed a few supplies, so a Target run would take up some time, too.
In-season, ripe peaches are my very favorite food in the whole world, so we had to make a stop to buy some!

On the way, we stopped at a peach stand to pick up some peaches – this happened right in the middle of recording a podcast – before arriving in Fresno.  We headed for the post office first where packaged up another box of stuff to send home.  And then I majorly geeked out over some stamps we bought there.  And people, if they’re still available, get yourself to the nearest US Post Office and get some of these.  Usually the only round stamps that the USPS makes are for international mail.  A few years ago, they made a round wreath one for Christmas, and we bought enough to send all of our cards to international friends using those for several years. But this summer they have made round, textured stamps featuring different types of balls – tennis balls, baseballs, volleyballs, and even kickballs!  I am no philatelist or anything, but those stamps are cool, people. 

And the other ones you must run out to get a sheet of are the ones commemorating the upcoming total solar eclipse on August 21.  Now, I thought these stamps were cool when we picked up a sheet inside the post office because they showed the moon as a black circle with the sun’s rays streaking out from it on all sides.  But when we took them outside, they became even cooler – the moon appeared!  These stamps change in light!  Now tell me, isn’t that worth geeking out about? I realize almost nobody uses stamps anymore, but try to come up with a reason to send some snail mail using these things. They’re awesome.
Shipping home another box of stuff helped to clear out some space in the back of the Volvo.
Once I’d finished being a complete nerd at the post office, we commenced our almost-daily search for a place to eat.  Yelp! had been supremely unhelpful three days earlier when we were in Fresno, so we used the tried-and-true method of just driving around until we found something that looked promising.  That’s how we ended up at West Coast Fish N Chips, a tiny hole in the wall in a strip mall with an even tinier sign.  It may seems that fish and chips aren’t that hard to do, but these people do everything from scratch.  Just look at the sign they post explaining their philosophy.
Who makes their own sauces?  Almost nobody!
The sign you see here isn't even visible from the road.
We had to wait for about 20 minutes after we ordered for our food to arrive because everything is made when you order it.  It tasted just like the fish and chips we’ve eaten in England; all that was missing was the traditional mushy peas side dish (which is actually yummy in small amounts).
Fish and chips with a side of battered veggies - yummy!

After dinner, we made a Target run and then checked out the Gibson Farm Market which is a meat, dairy, and produce stand run by Fresno State University.  All of the agricultural products are grown and produced right on campus, and we picked up some fresh veggies and ice cream to munch on.  It was a surprisingly professional-looking enterprise, and it was packed with customers.  They are open every day, and it made me wish that Purdue’s Butcher Block concept would expand to dairy and produce.
Please open one of these, Purdue!

Since by then it was after 5:00, we could safely head to Yosemite without worrying about arriving during the heaviest tourist time.  We made a bee line for Glacier Point to marvel at the imposing vista including both Half Dome and a thundering Yosemite Falls.  This was a complete surprise to me, since I’d heard many friends tell about their summer trips to Yosemite and the way that the waterfalls were mere trickles in the summer months.  A winter of heavy snowfall meant that visitors this summer were rewarded with impressive amounts of falling water that echoed throughout the valley as it fell.
The light was PERFECT when we arrived!  Look at those reds and pinks!
We stood in awe at the edge of Glacier Point and began to understand why Yosemite is one of the nation’s most popular and iconic parks.  Of course hordes of people were there for the 4th of July holiday (and a whole heaping herd of them were perched there on the cliffs with us), but even that couldn’t detract from the stunning beauty in front of us. We stayed until well past sunset before beginning the hour-long drive down into the valley where we’d be staying for the next three nights.
Half Dome looms large in the background of our family picture.

Look at all that water plunging into the valley!

When we finally arrived at what used to be Curry Village but is now known as Half DomeVillage*, it was well after dark**.  We drove around and around looking for a place to park, and Kinley got the fright of her life when the face of a lady, who had apparently been sleeping in her car, popped up in the window next to us just as Kinley was getting out of our car.  Once she’d regained her composure, we all trooped through the dark to our cabin. 

Most of the area that wasn’t filled with parked cars was covered with what the park calls tent cabins.  These were canvas-walled tents with a raise wooden platform floor, a screen door, and cots for sleeping.  They had no electricity, and the occupants of the tents were required to keep all their food in bear-proof lockers outside each tent.  There were 403 of them in Half Dome Village.  Hence the parking issues.
This example of a tent cabin was less than 10 feet from our cabin.  You can see many others in the background.
We had booked the slightly nicer Cabins Without Bathrooms.  (That’s what they called them.  For real.  It sounds all noble like Doctors Without Borders or something, but it’s really just expensive and inconvenient.)  There were only 14 of those, and we only booked one because when we called a year ago to reserve a room, that’s the nicest thing that was left.  The Awahnee, the Wawona, and even the 46 Cabins With Private Baths (creative nomenclature, for sure) were all full.  A year in advance.
Knox stands in front of our Cabin Without Bathroom.
All of the cabins – tent, without bathrooms, and with private baths -- looked like no thought whatsoever had been given to their placement in the valley.  It looked as if each one had been a little Monopoly house in some designer’s hand who then took 463 of the little buggers, tossed them onto a map of the area, and then placed them at the campground, higgledy-piggledy, just as they fell.  Three bath houses were within spitting distance of each other a few steps away from our cabin, but that left dozens of other cabins without nearby bathrooms.  Why wouldn’t they have spread those three bath facilities out more? I guess the Monopoly pieces just fell that way.

Once we finally located our Cabin Without Bathroom, we hauled in all of our stuff.  These nicer-but-still-expensive-for-a-place-with-no-bathroom cabins had two double beds, electricity, a chest of drawers, a bedside table with a lamp, and a fan.  After we unloaded our substantial amount of luggage, we paraded to the bath house, armed with the keyless-entry password given only to paying guests.  Kinley and I needn’t have bothered.  The door wasn’t even latched.  We brushed our teeth and got ready for bed, hoping silently that neither of us would need to make a bathroom run in the middle of the night.

Poor Knox had been saying the whole trip that he thought he might want to really go camping – like, real tent camping – sometime.  I was beginning to feel guilty, like a bad mom who’s depriving her son of essential experiences.  I was beginning to consider caving in, borrowing some gear form friends, and taking the child on an overnight camp out.  That is, until Yosemite.  Nope.  Not doing it.  This was a rough as I ever care to deal with again.***

We all settled in for the night with the sounds of Yosemite Falls thundering off in the distance.  Even the thought of a late-night bathroom run didn’t take away the wonder of that sound.  I slept well.  All night long.

*The concessionaire for Yosemite used to be Delaware North Corporation (DNC).  Concessionaires work on a 15-year contract with the NPS, and the last time new bids were open at Yosemite, DNC lost the bid to operate the lodges and campgrounds inside Yosemite to Aramark.  Then things got interesting.  It turns out that during the last 15-year contract, DNC trademarked all the names of the historic lodges at Yosemite!  And, apparently, the NPS didn’t give them permission to trademark them.  So now, DNC is basically holding the names of the historic properties hostage!  Yosemite has had to come up with new names for all of these properties, places that are known world-wide by their iconic names thanks in part to the PBS documentary about America’s National Park lodges.  The Awahnee is now The Majestic Yosemite Hotel.  Curry Village is now Half Dome Village.  The Wawona is now Big Trees Lodge.  Until the courts decide whether or not a concessionaire can trademark the name of a facility they don’t actually own, significant expenses have been incurred to change maps, signage, websites, stationery, etc.  And there’s so much confusion!  Seasoned employees can’t break the habit of using the old names, and park guests like us who made reservations over a year ago to stay at one place now find that place no longer exists.  Personally, I hope the courts find in favor of the NPS, but I can’t imagine how they’ll have enough money to fight for the naming rights.
See the part of the sign that says Half Dome Village?  It's a vinyl banner that's hung over the historic wooden signing that reads Curry Village.  The NPS cannot use the Curry Village name anymore thanks to a trademark issue.

**Many of the parks we’ve visited this summer have been designated as International DarkSky Parks.  This means that the parks work hard to keep light pollution to a minimum, so there are no streetlights and few lit signs or paths at night.  While that makes for awesome stargazing and makes the habitat for nocturnal animals much more natural, it is a pain when you’re trying to navigate unfamiliar territory after dark.  Hauling luggage.  And a sleepy ten-year-old.

***If you have a hankering to take a very sweet but also sometimes clueless and possibly very sheltered ten-year-old on a real tent camping trip, let me know.

Twin Parks, Ancient Trees, and a Beautiful Canyon: A National Park Odyssey Days 20-21

Kings Canyon National Park and Sequoia National Park
Park #10 - Kings Canyon

The John Muir Lodge, which is where we spent the three nights we were exploring Kings Canyon and Sequoia, is located in Kings Canyon National Park.  You almost always hear these two parks mentioned together, but they are actually separate.  Well, sort of.  Let’s just say that if they had a Facebook relationship status, it would read, “It’s complicated.”  They are side by side, they share the same Junior Ranger program, they have separate signs, and both of them have giant sequoia groves within their boundaries.  Kings Canyon is far less crowded (with the exception of the General Grant Grove), and both are surrounded by a national forest.  For our first day, we stuck to Kings Canyon.
We LOVED the central location of the John Muir Lodge inside Kings Canyon National Park.

We woke up on day 20 relieved to find that no bears had broken in to our car overnight, so we climbed in headed for a nearby driving trail to Panorama Point.  From the lookout area you would expect to be able to see Mount Whitney, the highest point in the lower 48 states which is located nearby, but you’d be wrong.  Oddly enough, Mt. Whitney is hidden behind other less-tall mountains from pretty much every angle.  Nevertheless, our effort to climb up the short but steep-ish paved trail to the lookout was rewarded with a sweeping vista.
See Mt. Whitney in the distance? Yeah, me neither.
The snow-capped mountains in the distance were beautiful.

Our next stop was the General Grant Tree, a giant sequoia which is the third largest tree in the world and is located in one of the groves in Kings Canyon.  It is 267 feet tall and more than 1500 years old.  (In case you’re wondering as we were, Coastal Redwoods are the tallest trees, but sequoias grow far bigger around.)  The area was overrun with tourists like us, and the line to get a picture standing in front of the tree was longer than I was willing to face.  Instead we walked the loop and got some decent pictures from the side and the back.  We walked through the Fallen Monarch tree and contemplated the extraordinary lifespans of these magnificent plants. 
The majestic General Grant tree is so impressive that it won't fit into a regular camera shot without being too far away to see the sign.
The Fallen Monarch has been hollowed out by forest fires so you can walk through it.

Sequoias have no known upper lifespan limit.  They can withstand forest fires that wipe out less-resilient species, and many of the trees within the two parks’ boundaries were alive at the time of Christ.    Sequoias often die because the soil surrounding them becomes too wet and soft, making their top-heavy forms no match for gravity.  Many of the trees we saw were leaning like living towers of Pisa, but, of course, they could stay in that seemingly precarious position for years before eventually toppling over.
Giant sequoias start out as tiny pine cones like this one in Knox's hand.

In the 1950s, a campground with cabins was located right in the middle of the General Sherman Grove of ancient giant sequoias in Sequoia National Park.  At the time, one sequoia was leaning severely and threatened to fall on one of the cabins.  The decision was made by the NPS to cut down the tree to ensure the safety of tourists staying at the campground.  While I understand that no one wants to be smashed in their sleep by a 2,000 year old tree, the idea that one of these majestic trees would be sacrificed just so a bunch of tourists could spend the night in a protected grove gave me pause.
Knox reads about the fate of this downed giant.

Based on the way Knox and I felt whenever we passed a sequoia stump or an interpretive sign explaining how many of the giants had been felled during logging, we decided not to do the Big Stump Trail.  We agreed that it would be far too depressing.

We returned to the visitors’ center to finish up the Junior Ranger booklets and were thrilled to have a very charming and entertaining ranger swear in Kinley and Knox.  We’re still repeating some of his corny jokes weeks later.  A brand new restaurant inside the park had opened up the day before, so we decided to have lunch there.
We have had so many pleasant interactions with park rangers on this trip.  Almost all of them have been generous with their time and attention, but this ranger was especially memorable.

That afternoon, we drove down into Kings Canyon, a drive that took about an hour and ten minutes.  The scenery along the way was beautiful, a very different kind of canyon from the Grand Canyon but grand nonetheless.  We pulled over to check out a waterfall on Ten Mile Creek before proceeding on to Zumwalt Meadow where we planned to hike a loop trail.  We arrived at dusk, so there were only a couple of cars in the trailhead parking lot.
Even if Kings Canyon weren't populated with Giant Sequoias, the breathtaking canyon alone would be reason to protect it.
Knox and I enjoyed the rushing water of Ten-Mile Creek.

The loop trail through the picturesque meadow crossed a river and included a boardwalk section affording a view of the surrounding trees and mountains.  Unfortunately, the boardwalk was flooded meaning that we wouldn’t be able to complete the loop.  We turned back after snapping a few pictures and enjoying the scenery.  We proceeded to walk around the loop in the opposite direction through giant boulders and past delicate wildflowers until the bugs forced us to retreat to the car.
At the beginning of the Zumwalt Meadow Trail is a bridge spanning a picturesque river.
Visiting the meadow in the late afternoon was perfect for us (except for the bugs).
You can see how the boardwalk was flooded in this picture.  We were really hoping to get to do the whole loop because the scenery was lovely and the temperature was pleasant.

Cedar Grove Lodge is another park lodge in the bottom of the canyon, and we had hoped to eat there for dinner.  Unfortunately, their restaurant was really more of a snack bar, and it had closed 15 minutes before we arrived.  We picked up a couple of things from the camp store and had peanut butter sandwiches in the car on the way back up to the John Muir Lodge instead.
In the little store at the Cedar Grove Lodge, I saw this sign.  I didn't see another one like it all summer long even though we visited MANY National Park shops.  It had never before occurred to me that shoplifting could be a federal offense, and I wondered if the sign was an effective deterrent.

We started day 21 with breakfast on the lodge’s second-floor porch which had ample seating and was peaceful and pleasant even if the view was partially of the parking lot.  Besides the porch, the lodge has indoor seating areas at both ends of the second floor which are nice for using wifi when the rest of the people in your room are trying to sleep, though we suspected that the suspiciously grungy and smelly people we saw sitting there often were actually backpackers and campers who’d sneaked in to use the free wifi.  This was the only place we encountered where the ice machine was accessible only with your room key, so we suspect that past backpackers and campers were helping themselves to ice, forcing the hotel crack down.  (We experienced a similar phenomenon at Yosemite’s campground where the showers were password protected.  But backpackers who weren’t paying to stay at the campground would just hang out by the shower doors until some kind soul held the door open for them, allowing them to grab a free shower.  I was never one of those kind souls.)
We have been blessed by ACMNP this summer!

For our first stop, we drove to the Lodegpole Amphitheater for a worship service led by A Christian Ministry in the National Parks (ACMNP).  We had been to one of their services at the Grand Canyon, and were glad to see that another group was working in Sequoia.  After a small but meaningful service, we did some laundry at the Wuksachi Lodge.  TRAVEL TIP:  Evidently, no one wants to do laundry at 10:00 on a Sunday morning, so we had the place to ourselves!  We were able to do all of our laundry at one time while we grabbed lunch at the nearby cafe.  Within an hour we were ready for the rest of our day!
Yay for empty laundry facilities!
At every Visitors' Center there is a donation box, but at this one, there was a little slot for each state so that you could see how much other people from your state had donated.

Since we had heard that parking at the General Sherman Grove was difficult, we decided to use the shuttle system for the day as we explored Sequoia National Park.  Practically speaking, shuttles are a pain.  They are crowded, slow, never there when you want them, and filled to the brim with people who don’t know what they’re doing.  But I completely understand the need to lessen the environmental impact of thousands of cars per day descending upon fragile ecosystems, so we used them frequently during our trip at several of the parks.  TRAVEL TIP #2:  Park at the Lodgepole Amphitheater and get on the shuttle there.  It is only a few steps from the Visitors' Center but your chances of getting a seat (or even standing room) are far higher at the shuttle stop at the Amphitheater than at the shuttle stop at the Visitors' Center.
There was standing room only on most of the shuttles we rode this summer.

We started with the General Sherman Tree, the largest tree in the world, and then continued on to the nearby Congress Trail which winds through sequoias named for several US Presidents as well as the House and the Senate.  The area around the General Sherman Tree is just as crowded as the General Grant Grove, so we settled for pictures at a distance.  Far fewer people do the 2.9 mile Congress Trail, but we certainly didn’t experience solitude as we hiked.  I was annoyed with the kids who were both picking at each other, so Josh likes to tell me that this was my foulest hike of the trip.  Yep, folks, we Boyds are real people who get really annoyed with each other sometimes.  It is what it is.
This was the line to take a picture in front of General Sherman.  No, thanks.

A rear view worked just fine for us.

Josh took a panoramic shot to be able to get the whole tree in.   Forgive the distortions.

I was so ready to be done, in fact, that when we reached The McKinley Tree which usually would have made me excited since Kinley is named after President McKinley, I sat on a bench in a huff while Josh took pictures of Kinley strategically covering up the Mc on the tree’s sign.  Contrary to my mood, the pictures are adorable.
Kinley blocked out the Mc in the McKinley Tree since she's named after President McKinley.  I was somewhere off in a snit.
Just one of these trees can make you feel very small, but a cluster of them and you feel minuscule.

I love this one of Knox peeking out.

In Sequoia, cars are not permitted to drive to the Tunnel Tree, the famous fallen sequoia that has an opening large enough to drive through, until after 5:45 so that a miles-long back-up doesn’t occur as tourists wait their turn to inch through the felled tree, snapping pictures all the while.  We wanted to have our turn at the iconic photo, and we decided that we could drive through the tree and then on to Moro Rock for an evening view of the canyon.  On our way there, we saw several cars pulled over to the side of the road and slowed to see what was going on.  And there, down the hill, was a bear!  Our second bear of the trip!  And she had a cub!  I watched in awe as the little black ball of fur scampered (well, actually, it kind of slid and fell) down a tree to catch up with its mama and then disappeared into the underbrush before I could snap its picture.  But we got a nice clear shot of mama bear!  Other tourists were getting out of their cars to get a better look, and I said a silent prayer that these beautifully wild creatures wouldn’t develop any habits as a result of human interaction that would force them to be relocated.  Or worse.
Hello, mama bear!

As mama bear lumbered off to join her offspring, we made our way to Tunnel Tree and were shocked to find a long line of cars waiting for their turn to drive through.  Rather than just taking a picture and moving on, people were getting the entire family out of the car and staging ten minutes’ worth of group pictures (in the car, on the car, above the car, arms up, arms linked, sitting, standing -- you get the idea) before finally moving on so that another car could take a turn.  It was very frustrating, so we were very intentional about taking our picture quickly and moving on.  Except that we couldn’t move on because the families before us had parked instead of leaving.  I guess that they wanted to be in other family members’ pictures or to watch the process or something, but we had a serious traffic jam when we were trying to get out of the way.   It was nutso.
This was at least their twentieth pose.  All those people still had to climb down and get back in their car before anyone else could go through.
For our turn, no one got out of the car but me.
We tried to move but we couldn't because of all the other cars!

Once we finally extracted ourselves from the Tunnel Tree turmoil, we drove on to Moro Rock where we had planned to watch the sunset.  We hadn’t banked on having to wait so long to drive through a tree trunk, so we missed the sunset but decided to climb up the 364 steps anyway.   As we drove to the Moro Rock parking area, we saw another bear!  And this one had two cubs!  Mama bear gave her cubs just enough freedom to wander and learn and forage on their own, so we weren’t able to get a picture of the three of them together.
Can you spot the bear's rear end?

NOTE:  Is it possible that this was the same bear who had wandered a bit farther away from her first spot and maybe I just didn’t see that second cub the first time?  Well, maybe.  But we Boyds are still counting it as a separate sighting.

Finally at Moro Rock with the sun officially set, we started our climb.  It’s not a strenuous climb, but it is a narrow staircase that makes passing people who are on their way down difficult in places.  And, while I never had a fear of heights before, once I had children, that all changed.  Now, whenever we are near a cliff or on a precipice – which has occurred frequently on this trip --my mind begins envisioning all of the horrendous ways my children could die.  I hate it.  At the top, I worked hard to tell my brain to be rational, and it helped.  Mostly.  I kind of did make Knox hold my hand or hold the guard rail pretty much any time he wanted to move from place to place on top, but I’m still calling it a win because I didn’t grab both children and sit in the center of the massive monolith, rocking back and forth in the fetal position while holding them with a death grip.
Proof that you don't have to be there at sunset to get a great shot.
Such beauty!
Can you tell how nervous I am that Josh is leaning on that railing?  

But that’s how parenting while traveling goes, I guess.  In the morning, your kids’ bickering makes you want to just walk off down the trail by yourself and let them kill each other.  But by nightfall you want to wrap them up and protect them.  So I try to take a lesson from that mama bear – give them just enough freedom to wander and learn on their own.  I’m working on it.